GOP's raging new hypocrite: Meet Neel Kashkari, populist candidate for governor

This Republican candidate for California governor hates government spending. Just don't ask him about his résumé!

Published May 6, 2014 3:32PM (EDT)

Neel Kashkari        (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Neel Kashkari (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

When Neel Kashkari, Treasury's former chief money-passer-outer for TARP, announced a Republican gubernatorial bid in California, it seemed hilarious. What could make the guy whose most visible role in public life was to give banks as much public money as possible think he had a place in electoral politics?

But things have changed. Several months later, Kashkari's gubernatorial campaign is... just as hilarious, only now featuring a tragically desperate ad thrown on top. Watch as this "conservative Republican" chops up wood and toy trains, to show those fat cats in Sacramento what's what:

This is the first ad to air statewide for Kashkari, who's also pumped $500,000 of his own money into the race. (In an unfortunate clash of "appeals to violence as a means of appearing populist," Kashkari is having to share silly-ad media coverage with Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst, whose latest ad depicts her shooting guns. Just imagine what she'll do to the liberals in Washington.) 

While Kashkari may attempt to label himself as a "conservative Republican" by swinging an ax, he is generally what the strange, current political lexicon refers to as a "moderate Republican": as in, he wants to cut taxes and slash spending and pensions, but... he doesn't hate gay people? Other terms for this type of "moderate Republican" include "elite Republican," "coastal Republican," or "big-donor friendly Republican." 

The question Who does he think he's kidding? can be asked of many if not most politicians, but Kashkari's case is a particularly acute form of distance from reality -- he is begging to be called out, with each word he says.

Each cent that his opponents may or may not be spending on opposition researchers to look into Kashkari's past is a cent wasted. Consider his message from this ad: "Career politicians are clueless about earning a dollar. All they know is how to spend yours. I’m Neel Kashkari. I’m not a politician, so I actually understand hard work."

It's true, he is not a career politician. He is much worse: a Wall Street and Beltway insider who served as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and then followed Hank Paulson to the Treasury Department, where he ran the TARP program. In that role, his job was to "know how to spend" $700 billion worth of "yours" -- in this case, by giving investment banks as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible, without offering any transparency. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in fact, writes in her new memoir about the difficulty of working with the honest and fiscally prudent waste-slasher Neel Kashkari, whose team just couldn't seem to dump enough money into Citibank's coffers:

“We pressed him on the status of the big financial institutions: Did Treasury anticipate additional bailout assistance to the giant banks? Could we see the terms of the arrangements that had been worked out so far? Kashkari objected to the word bailout, so we wrangled about that for a couple of minutes,” Warren wrote. “But he was very clear on one point: The big cash injections were done, and Treasury would now concentrate on getting assistance to smaller banks.”

Within 48 hours, news broke that Citibank, which had already received $25 billion, would receive an additional $20 billion, and a $306-billion taxpayer guarantee, she wrote.

“At the same time we were receiving reassurances from the head of TARP that the big bailouts were finished, his colleagues were down the hall negotiating this gargantuan deal to bail out Citibank for a second time,” Warren wrote. “I was stunned – and furious…. Our panel hadn’t even had our first organizational meeting, but whatever vision I’d had of cooperation and candor had vanished.”

Kashkari might have been able to salvage his reputation if he'd simply left the public view for good after his stint in Treasury. But in 2010, he had the nerve to write a breathtakingly condescending op-ed in the Washington Post lecturing the public about how it needed to have its sweet, sweet government bennies cut:

Our belief in free markets is founded on the idea that each individual acting in his or her self-interest will lead to a superior outcome for the whole. The financial crisis has reminded us that free markets are not perfect -- but they do allocate capital better than any other system we know. A "me first" mentality usually makes markets more efficient.

But this "me first" mentality can also lead to shortsighted political decision making. Most Americans agree that we need more energy from clean sources, such as wind power -- until someone proposes installing a transmission line near their homes. Most people are against earmarks -- unless it is their representative scoring money for their district.

Cutting entitlement spending requires us to think beyond what is in our own immediate self-interest. But it also runs against our sense of fairness: We have, after all, paid for entitlements for earlier generations. Is it now fair to cut my benefits? No, it isn't. But if we don't focus on our collective good, all of us will suffer.

Thanks, Dad. 

His gubernatorial bid seems to be an extension of the thinking displayed in that 2010 op-ed -- although now, in his attempt to win over conservatives, he's using much more common, wink-wink language about the need to "get able-bodied people off welfare, food stamps, and unemployment and into the workforce." Does he intend to give each moocher an ax? 

So back to that question: Who does this guy think he's kidding? On the one hand, he's managed to get a a slew of prominent, wealthy Republicans to endorse him: Rep. Darrell Issa (second-richest member of Congress), Mitt Romney (rich previous presidential candidate), and Jeb Bush (guy to whom the GOP's wealthiest donors are flocking). 

Besides those three? A whopping 2% of Californians. 

But California has a nonpartisan blanket primary, in which the two leading vote-getters, regardless of party, will square off against each other in the general election. The "real" race in June's primary, then, will be for second place, to determine which candidate gets to lose to Gov. Jerry Brown in November. Even a mini-surge that "catapulted" Kashkari just barely into double digits could be enough to win him that second-place slot. Kashkari's first ad certainly follows the "let's make a stupid ad just so it will go viral and get us attention" strategy. The Kashkari campaign seems like a lot of fun, and a great outlet for revisiting the financial crisis. It wouldn't be such a bad thing to have him around for an additional few months.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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